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Manson, Charles (1934—)

Manson, Charles (1934—)

A hardened recidivist criminal, Charles Manson sought vengeance on a society he felt perpetuated his vicious cycle of incarceration. With a charismatic litany of love/hate, life/death mind games and heavy drug use, he attracted followers—"the Family"—who beheld him in messianic awe, yet were terrified of his brutality. Manson wanted attention, prison psychiatrists would explain, and eventually he would make famous (and infamous) the hippie thrill kill cult that murdered in his name to bring down "the Establishment" at the close of the tumultuous 1960s.

Born Charles Milles Manson on November 12, 1934, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Manson was often left in the care of a religiously strict aunt while his mother committed petty crimes. He was placed in a boys' school, and upon escaping, stole to survive, committing his first armed robbery at age 13. Described by case workers as "aggressively antisocial," Manson was considered a lost cause until he married Rosalie Joan Willis in 1955. Standing trial in Los Angeles for grand theft auto, Manson was nearly released on probation due to his marriage and newborn son. When he was jailed anyway, Rosalie divorced him and took Charles Manson, Jr., away. Manson never saw them again. After a brief probation, during which he was arrested for prostitution, Manson was returned to prison to serve the remainder of a ten-year sentence.

Though largely illiterate, Manson began studying the Bible, Scientology, and the science fiction of Robert Heinlein which—combined with his own song writing aspirations—formed the basis for Manson's concepts of group love and communal living. He was also blown away by Beatlemania which hit the United States in 1964, and he became obsessed with stardom, claiming he could be bigger than the Beatles given the opportunity.

After a transfer to Los Angeles in 1967, Charles Manson was released from the only home he'd ever known. He roamed California, traveling to San Francisco, panhandling, playing his music in Berkeley coffee houses, and attracting a cadre of runaways among those flocking to the mecca of the "Summer of Love." Manson also experimented with LSD, and encouraged others to do so, spouting his misinformed spiritualism and ingratiating himself into the flower power scene.

"The Family," as they called themselves, were mostly smalltime criminals from broken or dysfunctional nuclear homes, and Manson played the role of father, teacher, lover, God, and Devil. He was everything they needed, and, through emotional manipulation and isolation from a society he claimed had thrown them away, he became everything they wanted as well. Together they cruised California's highways, picking up wayward teenagers, teaching them how to forage, prostitute, and live communally. As the hippie aesthetic became fashionable in Hollywood, the Family was welcomed into the homes of L.A.'s hippest, well intentioned celebrities: filmmaker Kenneth Anger, producer Terry Melcher, and significantly Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who recorded some of Manson's jangly sociopathic folk tunes and from whom the Family took cash, credit cards, and clothing.

In 1968, the Family moved to the Spahn movie ranch in Simi Valley, a short drive from downtown Hollywood. Numbering as many as fifty, they worked as ranch hands in exchange for lodging in the dilapidated Western movie sets, scavenged for food in area dumpsters, and kept a steady stream of runaways flowing toward Manson's already crowded mattress. Meanwhile, he fueled their disenfranchisement with a barrage of synchronicities involving the Bible (specifically the Book of Revelations), Beatles lyrics (specifically the White Album), and the sordid events of his own life. He prophesied that a race war would erupt destroying all major cities and decimating the white population, and that he would rise up from the desert to rule over the remains of the human race. But Manson couldn't wait for his theory of "Helter Skelter" (named after the Beatles song of the same name) to come of its own accord; he and the Family began executing those individuals perceived as threats to this master plan.

The rejection of Manson's music by industry executives who had once befriended him only sparked more murders, the most famous (and grisly) occurring August 9 and 10, 1969, historically known as the Tate-LaBianca murders. Though Manson was not present for these, he incited Family members to slay coffee magnate Abigail Folger, pregnant actress Sharon Tate, and three others in the Hollywood home of director Roman Polanski. By leaving pseudo-political clues—"Piggy" and "Rise" smeared on the wall in the victims' blood and an American flag draped over a couch—the Family hoped to place blame away from their mission of salvation-through-murder. The next night, Family members killed prominent businessman Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in a similar fashion in their home.

Months later, Manson's pathology was uncovered due largely to the tenacious investigative work of district attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who reconstructed the events of those August nights and extracted the bizarre motive. After Manson and the murderers were arrested, advocates of the Family held vigils and shaved their heads in a show if solidarity, creating a media circus outside the courthouse, and Manson egged on the investigation by claiming he had already been judged and couldn't be punished more than he already had been.

Manson and eight Family members were convicted of first-degree murder in 1971. Though Manson was sentenced to death, the death penalty was abolished in California in 1972, and his sentence was reduced to life in prison. He made his first unsuccessful appearance before a parole board in 1978. This opportunity for release comes every seven years, and has always been met with stern opposition by the public as well as the families of the victims. Manson rarely seems disappointed with the prospect of returning to his cell though, claiming it's safer there than out in society and that his influence is far greater behind bars.

The lurid visual appeal of murder scenes, the intricacies of forensic testimony, the demonization of hippies, cults, and communes, and Manson's sinister theories on society's ills have forever changed the public view of "common" criminals and their influence on youth culture. Though the connection between dysfunctional families and crime had always been evident, Manson demonstrated to his followers—and, with media exposure, to the world—that one could become famous through misplaced aggression. Even underground institutions are divided on whether he is a sick symbol of our times or a martyred prophet; nevertheless, Charles Manson has become one of the most despicable media darlings in popular culture.

—Tony Brewer

Further Reading:

Bugliosi, Vincent, with Curt Gentry. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. New York, Bantam Books, 1974.

Sanders, Ed. The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1971.

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